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Wicked Good Travel Tips / Featured  / Understanding Visas, ESTA’s and USA Visa Waiver Programs When Traveling to America
12 Jun

Understanding Visas, ESTA’s and USA Visa Waiver Programs When Traveling to America

America’s Visas, ESTA’s and The USA Visa Waiver Program Explained

USA Passport

The United States of America has been a popular destination since Europeans started immigrating to the continent in the 1600s. Times have changed, but it is still a popular destination for pleasure, business, study and, of course, immigration.  However, with the numerous changes and restrictions regarding traveling to America that have happened in the last few years, many people are, rightly, concerned about their ability to enter and exit the USA legally and without difficulty.

Obviously, you will need a passport, but will you need a visa? If so, which one? How long will your visa last? If you have been to the US recently, will you need to reapply? For most people they will be looking for the ESTA visa for USA travel.

There are a lot of terms that are thrown around, and it can be very confusing for people trying to work out exactly what they should apply for, and what the process is. Two of the terms that are most often used are “Visa Waiver” and “ESTA” – but what are they?

ESTA & USA Visa Waiver

An ESTA is the “Electronic System for Travel Authorization” what has been set up but the Department of Homeland Security and the United States Customs and Border Protection to improve the security of the United States.

Prior to the introduction of the ESTA system in 2009 most citizens of many countries around the world could enter the USA for up to 90-days without needing anything more than their passport. This is referred to as the visa waiver system – no official visa was required.

The ESTA is NOT a visa, it is the system that checks to confirm a traveller is eligible to travel to the USA under the visa waiver programme.

So, What Is A Visa?

A visa is a document or stamp that is placed into your passport that gives you permission to enter the country and stay for a permitted period of time. Each country has different rules and regulations around who can apply for a visa, and what sort of visa needs to be applied for. For travellers to the USA there are a large range of visa types, depending on if you are visiting or if you are intending to live in America for a short or long period of time (e.g. a 4 year period of study or permeant immigration).  The first step is to visit the US State Department Visa Resources page.

Because many countries have reciprocal agreements in place that allow American citizens easy access as tourists, the USA introduced the ESTA to assist foreign citizens to gaining access into the USA without a visa, and without encountering difficulties when they reach US customs.

However, neither a visa nor an approved ESTA are a guarantee that the passport holder will be given access into the USA, but having an ESTA does mean that citizens of foreign countries who are eligible for the Visa Waiver Program no longer have to complete the green I-94W card upon arrival.

How Long Is My ESTA Valid For?

Once your ESTA application has been approved, you will not need to apply again within the next two years. The exemption is if your passport expires during this time, in which case you, unfortunately, will need to reapply. If you are intending to make several trips to the USA during the next two years it is a good idea to ensure that your passport will not need to be updated in this time, if it does you might considered renewing your passport before getting your ESTA approved (assuming you have time before your travel).

As per the terms of the visa waiver program (see here), you are still only allowed to stay in the U.S. for up to 90 days. However, while you may return as many times as you like during the two years that you have a valid ESTA, if the Customs & Border Patrol officers viewing your travel history feel that you are attempting to live in America (for example you are staying in New York for 90 days then going into Canada for the weekend, before attempting to return to New York), they may consider you in violation of the visa waiver program.

Any other changes of identity (e.g. Name or gender change) or changes of circumstances (e.g. receive a criminal conviction or contract a contagious disease) require you to re-apply for a new ESTA authorization.